Thursday, March 3, 2011

Probert brain study brings me back to fighting

As you may or may not have seen, the family of the late, legendary NHL fighter Bob Probert released the initial results of the Boston University study of his brain tissue.  Probert instructed his family to donate his brain to BU's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy upon his passing.

The results?  Probert was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  What is CTE, you ask?  Here's the quick and dirty from Wikipedia:
[CTE] is a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals who have been subjected to multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. A variant of the condition, dementia pugilistica, is primarily associated with boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in gridiron football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and other contact sports, who have experienced head trauma, resulting in characteristic degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein. Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy may show symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later.
This is somewhat new and emerging science. CTE research is conducted using harvested brain samples (meaning that the subject needs to die first), so it will not be truly cutting-edge until a new means to detect and track the development of CTE is conjured up.  The early results of this research, however, are chilling.  

The New York Times article suggests that CTE is a much more significant problem (that they know of) in boxers and football players, but hockey is not immune:
Although the National Hockey League has taken steps recently to reduce brain trauma — banning blindside hits to the head, for example — it has nonetheless continued to allow the fighting that some say is part of the sport’s tradition and appeal. Teams continue to employ and reward players like Probert, who are known as enforcers because of how they intimidate opponents. 
Hockey’s enduring tolerance for and celebration of fighting will almost certainly be tested anew now that Probert, more pugilist than playmaker, has become the first contemporary hockey player to show C.T.E. after death. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy had previously diagnosed the disease in a long-retired player, Reggie Fleming, a 1960s-era enforcer who played before the full adoption of helmets. 
“How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University center and a prominent neurosurgeon in the area of head trauma in sports. “We haven’t definitely established that the skills of hockey as a sport lead to a certain percentage of participants developing C.T.E. But it can happen to hockey players, and while they’re still relatively young.”
Learning this - and other information that has come out about CTE in recent months - shakes me on two levels.

As a father, one who enjoys skating and probably would have enjoyed hockey, I have to wonder long and hard about hockey - or football, or any other full-contact sport for that matter - as a sport that I should have my son play.  When the late former Chicago Bear, Dave Duerson, committed suicide last month, he too asked for his brain to be examined at BU due to apparent fears that he had CTE.  The reaction within the Notre Dame nation (Duerson was a Notre Dame alum) blew me away.  The rabid football fans stepped back from their blind love of the sport and reflected upon themselves and their families.  At the core of the discussion was this question: Is pushing your child to play a full-contact sport like football a de facto form of child abuse?  I don't know the answer but am struggling quite hard with the question - if you can't tell.  Would I put MY son out there, knowing that the risk of brain trauma is reasonably high?  Would I be able to live with myself if he was hurt in such a way?

Beyond my familial role, I also look at myself as a hockey fan (and football fan, but let's stick with hockey for the purposes of this blog) and can only shake my head.  You see, I'm really in both camps on this one.  I honestly enjoy a great hockey fight.  (Not like these guys like great hockey fights, but I do like them.)  And there are too few great fights these days as most are glorified bear hugs.  But when a top-notch fight breaks out, and the pistons are firing on both sides, I won't deny the visceral thrill.  It's the exact same thrill I get when I stumble upon a fantastic boxing match.  There is something about the man versus man conflict that is exciting.  But that's speaking with my heart.

When I look at hockey fighting with my head, I see all of the many, many flaws of fighting in the sport.  On a game-play level, NHL Rule 46.11 ("the instigator rule") has effectively moved fighting out of the realm of protecting one's teammate (as in, you cheap shot my teammate, so I drop the gloves with you) to the injection of "energy".  Energy?  Are you kidding me?  If you want to provide energy to your team, throw a hit (and many do, often in regrettable cheap shots), take a shot, rush up the ice and demonstrate hockey skills that put the biscuit in the basket.  But fighting for the sake of "energy," to me, is silliness more resembling a circus sideshow.

And now, with the Probert results, the CTE discussion comes back into the picture.  I see these beloved enforcers like Shelley, Boll and Mirasty (I suppose I could also include the terminally reckless player like a Dorsett as well) go into fights and, since getting wind of this CTE matter, start worrying about them over the long term.  These guys have given their all for their team and their sport.  But "their all" doesn't just result in the bum shoulder or bad knees (I know, football article...I looked hard for a similar hockey article and couldn't find one) after retirement.  It's brain damage.  And, in my mind, that's a game-changer.  People who play these sports have to figure that their bodies are going to suffer after taking a beating in the pro game (as well as the years leading up to those professional years).  But do they understand that their very essence might be punched right out of them before they are 30?  Is the fighting and the hockey worth (worth being relative, as most fighters outside of Derek Boogaard don't make much in comparison to their "skill" teammates) 40-50 years of misery from which they can never escape?  If you have a bum knee, you can get a knee replacement.  But what about a brain replacement?  Not happening any time soon, I don't think.

So here I sit, mulling over the personal paradox that is fighting in hockey.  I love it, yet I'm growing more and more repulsed by what it means to the sport and the people who drop the gloves.  And I genuinely don't know how to reconcile myself with this.

(Yet, at the same time, I'm trying to figure out whether wearing my new Jon Mirasty Blue Jackets jersey - the pride of my hockey jersey collection - will bring better tough-guy mojo against Edmonton or Calgary.  Because I can't wear it for two straight days, you know.)


  1. Fighting in hockey is a fantastic way to take out aggression on players you deem to have wronged your team in some way or another. If you remove fighting, players will start getting their revenge by returning cheap shots and deliberately trying to injure players. Fighting gives a legitimate league sanctioned way for two players to settle the score. Take that away and you're going to see a lot more season ending injuries on attempts to settle that score.

  2. To me, it's not just fighting, and there's a lot of evidence to back that up. (Women's NCAA hockey, for example, bans fighting, but has a concussion rate higher than any other NCAA sport...even NCAA FOOTBALL.)

    I think we really need to take a look at the equipment currently being used, and how players are allowed to hit and check each other. I think we've reached the point where a very real danger is that we've made players capable of delivering blows with forces and speeds greater than the protection their wearing can compensate for, and this sort of long term damage is the result.

    Fighting will probably never leave the game - even if it's legislated out, players can and will react to heated emotions in tense situations - but I really think that improving the gear to actually PROTECT, instead of just enhance, might make a very big difference.

  3. Anonymous - I think you're already seeing what you suggest would happen, and that's because of the Instigator Rule. You're not allowed to fight to protect your fellow player, so you toss an elbow or deliver another cheap shot. It's happening right now, pretty much every night.

    BZArcher - I'm still developing my opinion on this, much as I am about fighting in general. I'm starting to think that equipment, however, is a red herring. The improvements in equipment have only HEIGHTENED the risk of injury on the ice because players feel more and more invincible behind their protective armor. Perhaps we need those crunching blows to deliver a little more pain to the deliverer to match that given to the recipient...perhaps that's the deterrent to violence in hockey.

    There's been some discussion that the nostalgia over the Broad Street Bullies era of NHL hockey masks an assertion that some make - that hockey might not have been as consistently violent in days past as it is being portrayed today. I'm sure that's for a number of reasons, but might weaker equipment have something to do with it?

    (And I write this knowing that lawyers won't let any diminishing of the equipment take place. I know it's a non-starter. But still...)

  4. I think you're right about players feeling invincible, but I think that's because the equipment has been designed to protect the wearer, and not to protect in collisions. There have to be ways to do both.

  5. DBJ, BZArcher -
    Excellent points both of you. I was going to say the equipment needs to evolve, and we are ready for a second generation hockey helmet, but I think BZA brings up a good point that said equipment should both players, the hitter and the hittee.

    Well done gents!

  6. This is such an important conversation, and one I'm happy to see resurface every time it pops its head above the surface. Thanks, DBJ, for bringing it into our focus again today. I don't know _exactly_ where I stand on the ongoing fighting debate, though I think fighting has an important place in the game -- one that goes well beyond tradition and toughness.

    I agree with DBJ on the point about equipment making players feel invincible, but I feel this is more the case in "game situations" than in fights. Perhaps this point is better lumped into the cage vs visor vs no eye/face protection debate? (That's not to say that debate doesn't have a place in the larger fighting debate, though I suppose, so debate away, if you will).

    One place where my opinion is well-formed: I worry far less about punches being thrown (and landed) than I do about someone falling "just right" and turning their noggin to nougat via a collision with the ice -- I'm talking fights, checks, anywhere in the game (come to think of it, I missed Dorsett's "neck injury;" was it not from such an awkward landing? I also worry about the cheap shots, punished and unpunished, that can sideline players. Knee-on-knee is painful to see. Head into the dasher is Candyman (<--I had nightmares for weeks) scary. A few knuckle sandwiches, particularly thrown with the honor that accompanies 99% of hockey fights, seem like small potatoes at times. More, if those knuckle sandwiches deter the possibly (probably) far more dangerous dirty hits at speed, then I say fight on, boys.

    Now, DBJ, I'm not a parent, and can't be completely empathetic here, but I think we (larger, human sense of the word) do a good job of letting our youth into the tougher spots in sports slowly and with great caution (often more caution than necessary -- seriously, Little League, let these kids lead off and steal bases... where's the risk?). I would, by any and all means, be extremely careful about where my (future?) children get their exercise, but I firmly believe that youth hockey (and football, and all the rest) do take serious measures to protect children and young adults. The kids participating in these sports need to be educated as well, and I am more than confident the DBT will know exactly what he's getting himself into when he's ready to take it up a notch (maybe a few notches if we're still running the aisles at [the] Nationwide Arena).

    Thanks again for encouraging the conversation!

  7. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed the linked ESPN piece (Men Who Love Goons). Great read. I appreciated the author's perspective as an outsider. Lots of great snapshot paragraphs in there.


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